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Woodpigeon

Pigeons are our day-to-day companions: their gentle and persistent calls are the soundtrack of woodlands, gardens and urban areas.

You only need to look out the window and you’ll probably spot one clattering in a tree, gliding through the air, or shuffling along a high ledge.

In this ID guide, we’ll be giving you tips on telling different doves and pigeons apart: which have white neck patches, which have black collars, and what it means if they have iridescent plumage.

Find out which species travels all the way from Africa to spend the summers here, how they played a role in Darwin’s understanding of evolution, and why we have so many pigeons in our cities.

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As well as the ubiquitous street pigeon (or feral pigeon), there are five UK species of pigeon and dove in the UK: woodpigeons, rock doves, stock doves, collared doves, and turtle doves.

 

Woodpigeon ID characteristics described in accompanying text

Woodpigeon

A burly pigeon with a song to match.

Its deep, repeated 5 note phrase has been described as sounding like: ‘take two cows, Taffy’ or ‘a proud wood pig-eon’ or even ‘my toe bleeds, Betty’.

It has grey feathers above, a pinkish chest, a white patch on the side of its neck, yellow eyes, and white wing bars which are more obvious in flight.

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Rock dove feral pigeon ID characteristics described in accompanying text

Rock dove

The ancestor of domestic pigeons and now only found on sea cliffs in Scotland and Ireland.

If you spot a pigeon away from a distant sea cliff – like this one pictured – with its dark head and neck, iridescent green neck patch, and broad dark wing bars, it’ll be a street or feral pigeon, a descendant of the rare rock dove species. Its call is the familiar ‘crooo’.

Read to the end of the blog to discover why there are so many in our cities today.

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Stock dove ID characteristics described in accompanying text

Stock dove

A daintier size than the similar looking wood pigeon but without the wood pigeon’s white neck patch or white wing bars. It has a beautiful green neck patch (like a rock dove), jet-black eye and narrow dark wing bars.

Unlike wood pigeons, stock doves haven’t moved into urban areas. You’ll mainly see or hear them in wooded farmland: listen out for its soft, low-pitched cooing sound.

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Collared dove ID characteristics described in accompanying text

Collared dove

These doves originated in Asia and first bred here in the 1950s, and they are now a regular sight in our gardens, woodlands and parks.

It’s a pale, pinky-brown-grey, with a distinctive black neck collar and deep red eyes.

Its non-stop ‘hoo hoooo-hoo’ call will be a familiar sound.

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Turtle dove ID characteristics described in accompanying text

Turtle dove

Much smaller and darker than collared doves, turtle doves have delicate terracotta and black scalloped plumage, a black tail with white edges, and an orange eye.

It arrives in this country from Africa in April/May and sets off again any time from July to September.

Its soporific purring call used to be one of the most evocative sounds of summer. However like many other migratory birds, this red-listed species has seen a worrying decline in numbers in recent years.

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Why are there so many pigeons in our cities?

Urban populations of pigeons are descended from escaped domestic birds which were, in turn, descended from rock doves. These were the first birds to be domesticated around 6,000 years ago.

A pigeon in Trafalgar Square

Before modern farming, people relied on three main sources for fresh meat all year: dovecotes for pigeons, rabbit warrens, and ponds for fish. Pigeons not only provided meat but also produced very valuable guano (pigeon poo), which was ten times richer in nutrients than other animal manure. This pigeon dung was important for the development of farming.

So the biggest reason you’ll find pigeons in cities around the world is because humans brought them there.

Message-carrying pigeons

When we discovered that chickens were easier and more productive to keep, our reliance on pigeons for food declined. But people found them invaluable in other ways, particularly for their amazing ability to carry messages.

This skill was first used 3,000 years ago, and by the fifth century BC, Syria and Persia had extensive networks of message-carrying pigeons.

During the two world wars, pigeons’ homing skills were vital. In the early 1940s, the American Signal Pigeon Corps had 3,000 soldiers and 54,000 pigeons, with 90 percent of the messages getting through. These pigeons saved many lives, and out of 54 Dickin Medals awarded to animals in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

A message carried by a pigeon, attached to its leg
A flock of flying pigeons

Fancy pigeons

Enthusiasts, known as pigeon fanciers, have bred pigeons for hundreds of years to develop different size, shape, colour and behavioural traits – but they’re all based on the original rock dove species.

There are about 800 different pigeon breeds such as the West of England Tumbler or the English Fantail. No other domestic animal has branched out into such a variety of forms and colours.

Charles Darwin was a keen pigeon fancier. He pointed out that pigeon breeding could be used as an analogy for evolution: in the wild, natural selection plays the part of the fancier, selecting which individuals will reproduce.

An English Fantail pigeon

An English Fantail pigeon: a fancy pigeon developed from the rock dove species

For more ID tips, read our blogs about: crows and ravens; swallows, swifts and martins; wagtails; and birds of prey.